“For beginning writers,” writes Jon Morrow of Smartblogger, “power words are one of the easiest tools to master. Unlike many storytelling strategies, which can take years of practice to master, you can start sprinkling power words into your writing, and you’ll notice an immediate lift in the quality of your prose.”
A power word, according to Morrow, “is defined by its ability to make you feel.” It derives its power from the emotional reaction you have to it. Because that reaction, like all emotional reactions, is unconscious – at the edge of rational control – power words promise to sneak under the reader’s cognitive radar and influence them to buy or click.
Beyond emotion, power words probably tap into other sub- or unconscious responses to language. Connotations, for example, generate power. Kevan Lee, in a useful post, gives a good example. “The difference between ‘joining’ and ‘signing up’,” he writes, “is the difference between fellowship and enlisting. A word changes the meaning, the mood, and the motivation.”
Lee also references another source of verbal power: the so-called ‘bouba-kiki’ effect, which suggests that our brains somehow attach abstract meaning to the actual sounds of words in a consistent way. (A ‘bouba’, for example, is probably rounded or soft, while a ‘kiki’ is probably sharp and jagged.)
Don’t ignore the poetic or musical power of your copy.
I’m grateful to Kevan Lee for a lot of the material here. Let’s follow him and consider a few lists of power words – from short to long.
To begin: he lists these as the five ‘most persuasive words in the English language’. Well, maybe. Sometimes.
(This is an interesting piece on the origin of the list.)
From twenty to forty-eight. And I feel a need to start listing alphabetically. This list apparently derives from a study of best-selling magazine covers. It will probably serve you well in promotional copy and email subject lines.
- Hot Special
- How to
Now for two, longer lists. Each, intriguingly, is exactly 120 words long.
First, ExpressWriters offers this list that, they claim, “can boost your headlines and power up your content for better click-through’s [sic] and results.” And they throw in 10 “compelling call-to-action phrases” for good measure.
(Pity about the wandering apostrophe.)
The second list derives from a recent webinar at Leanplum about push notifications: messages sent from an app directly to someone’s mobile device. The message appears even if the device is locked or if the person is inside a different app. Push notifications, say Leanplum ingenuously, “are useful for sending information to app users in real time.”
According to Stefan Bhagwandin, “effective mobile messaging is a huge challenge for mobile marketers. Not only will these “power words” amplify your creativity and app engagement, but they will increase your open rates, retention, and revenue.”
Leanplum examined more than 2.6 billion mobile push notifications sent by brands between January 1 and December 31, 2016. Each word in the dataset was isolated and assigned an engagement score based on how it affected open rates across different campaigns. The researchers found that the words with the highest engagement scores fell into four main groupings:
- words that convey urgency (alert, pending, critical);
- words that convey exclusivity (accepted, eligible, limited);
- words that convey emotion (dream, epic, warning); and
- words that convey value (bargains, deals, sale).
The list has its eccentricities. I’d guess that ‘tick-tock’, ‘inventory’ and ‘forfeiture’ (really?) are unlikely to appear on any other list of power words. But in the new world of mobile apps, power presumably shifts.
And finally, this ‘monster list of power words’ comes from Jon Morrow of Smartblogger. Morrow offers no fewer than 317 “Emotion-Packed Words and Phrases That’ll Instantly Make You a Better Writer”.
Morrow helpfully categorizes his list: ‘words to provoke fear’, ‘words to encourage and energize’ and so on. And, generously, he offers his list free. Download a copy here.
For me, all of these lists can act like oracles. Use them to stimulate new ideas.
And then test them.